To the French, and maybe others, Burgundy (or Bourgogne to the French) is not just the original home of Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, but also terroir that best expresses the character of these grapes - elegant, aromatic, and complex.
GENERAL TERROIR & HISTORY
Having been a tropical sea millions of years ago, the limestone soils from what used to be the seabed are the secret behind the minerality that Burgundian wines are so well known for.
Winemaking in the region is also relatively long, dating to around 50BC. It’s believed that the Celts were producing wine in Burgundy when conquered by the Romans. The Romans picked up where the Celts left off, but after the fall of the Roman Empire, it was the Catholic church that took over the wine-making duties. Cistercian monks where the ones who elevated wine making in the region, believing that hard work brought them closer to God. Cultivating the rocky Burgundian slopes certainly qualified, but the monks also took an intellectual approach to wine making. They kept meticulous records and developed the idea of terroir, a term to describe the character of wine imparted by the environment in which it’s produced. In 1336, Cistercians created the first enclosed Burgundian vineyard, Clos Vougeot, which is still producing wine.
What's interesting for Burgundy is that winemaking here is like painting with watercolors, where you literally get one shot at the vintage. This is because growers are growing only single varietal styles, and are not allowed to declassify their wines to a lower classification if something did not go to plan. If this happens, the grower essentially has wasted a vintage. Vats are usually made to measure for the acreage of the plots they have.
Pinot Noir wine was so beloved that Duke Phillipe outlawed the growing of Gamay grapes in 1395. Later, he also banned manure fertilization, which increased grape yield, but diluted the flavors. In the late 15th century, Burgundy became part of France, which was still a monarchy. After the French Revolution, the church’s land was confiscated and auctioned off to private owners. Over several generations, the land was divided multiple times due to Code Napoléon. This law required that inheritances be divided equally among each child. Today, it’s not uncommon for a chateau to have dozens of owners, with only a few rows each.
Today, there are over 100 “appellations,” or approved wine growing areas, and these are divided into 4 levels of quality.
- 52% Regional Wines (e.g. Crémant de Bourgogne, Bourgogne Rouge, etc) Wines from overarching Bourgogne appellations
- 37% Village Wines Wines from a village or commune of Burgundy. There are 44 villages including Chablis, Nuits-St-Georges, and Mâcon-Villages, and the labels will mention the name of the towns, like “Pouilly-Fuissé,” “Santenay,” “Givry,” or “Mercurey”.
- 10% Premier Cru (e.g. Vosne Romanée 1er Cru) Wines from exceptional climats in Burgundy. There are 640 Premier Cru plots in Burgundy, and the label will say “Premier Cru” or “1er Cru.”
- 1% Grand Cru (e.g. Grands-Echézeaux, Montrachet, etc) Wines from Burgundy’s top plots (called climats). There are 33 Grand Crus in the Côte d’Or and about 60% of the production is dedicated to Pinot Noir.
MAJOR WINE VARIETALS & STYLES
While geographically Burgundy is relatively small, the region's influence on wine is huge. While it can be relatively complex to figure out, the easiest way to wrap your head around Burgundy is simply 2 grape varietals - Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
Crement de Borgogne
Found mostly in selected Crus in Chablis, due to it's terroir's suitability. The limestone ridge that runs through Champagne can also be found here, making high quality champagne alternatives.
It's usually Pinot Noir dominant, with about 30% Chardonnay grapes, and small percentages of other varietals like Gamay & Aligoté. Look for the style distinctions to understand exactly what's going into your Crement de Borgogne.
- Blanc; Blend of Pinot Noir & Chardonnay
- Blanc de Blancs; Close to 100% Chardonnay
- Blanc de Noir; Close to 100% Pinot Noir & Gamay
- Rose; Pinot Noir, with sometimes Gamay added in
LIGHT BODIED WHITE WINE
Aligoté makes up about 6% of Burgundy production, and is the lesser known local white varietal after Chardonnay. Pale gold & well balanced, it is a vibrant with with bright acidity that has a fruity bouquet with notes of apple & lemon.
It's a great wine with light foods such as grilled fish or salads, and stands up to foods like oysters & goat cheese. Traditionally, it's used in a wine cocktail called Kir where it's mixed with cassis liquer, but deserves it's own seat on the table.
FULL BODIED WHITE WINE
White Burgundy is the ultimate French white. It is looked up to as the gold standard of French white, even though it's just Chardonnay. The combination of terrior, tradition, and climate makes it somethign that cannot be replicated elsewhere. There are 4 overarching styles, with local microclimate variations
- Bourgogne Blanc are simple everyday drinking wines with mineral & apple notes, usually unoaked.
- Chablis are unoaked whites that are lean & crisp, with a bright acidity & lime like mineral notes.
- Mâconnais are more fruit forward, with notes of melon & starfruit.
- Côte de Beaune is the crème de la crème of White Burgundy, and are typically oak aged. Expect a richer style with apple & starfruit notes, as well as complex undertones of oak imparted notes like vanilla & hazelnut
LIGHT BODIED RED WINE
By far the most famous Pinot Noir region in France, it has a more earthy & floral style. As a terroir expressive grape, it's taste profile changes dramatically based on the environment it's grown in. As a common baseline, red fruit notes like cherry & raspberry come through, with spice aromas & a long smooth finish. Floral & savory notes such as clove, slate, and soil changing depending on the region it's grown in. Look to those grown on the east facing slopes of South of Dijon for some of the world's most coveted Pinots. Names like Gevrey-Chambertin, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Vosne-Romanee are some of the most coveted red Burgundy names around.
Located in Central Eastern France, There are 5 sub-regions of Burgundy; with each region having a specialisation in either Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, with different winemaking styles. There are some other grapes that are also grown, but in very small quantities
Chablis is the northmost region of Burgundy, famous for lean, unoaked Chardonnay. All wine from this region is white, and made with Chardonnay grapes. The terroir is really closer to Champagne. Chalky limestone soil retains & reflects warmth, giving the wines it's purity & crispness. Grapes have been grown been grown here since the Cistercian monks first started.
Note that Chablis is an exception to the general classification system, where higher classifications are based on locations within Chablis.
Premier Cru Chablis come from vineyards filled with the limestone marl, and would have climate names on the label, like “Mont de Milieu” (“Mount in the middle”), “Côte de Léchet” (really zesty), or “Fourchaume” (fruity)
Grand Cru Chablis come from vineyards located specifically in a beautiful arc north of the town of Chablis, where the steep slopes face south-southwest. Look for the vineyards of Blanchot, Bougros, Les Clos, Grenouilles, Presuses, Valmur, and Vaudésir. Usually, they have a different style from the rest of Chablis as they are aged in oak with floral honey notes and a refreshing flinty acidity
CÔTE DE NUITS
Côte de Nuits is home to some of the most expensive vineyards in the world; and where a Pinot Noir can age for decades. Mostly Pinot Noir, the wines show classic full-bodied Burgundy notes of black currant, cherry, fresh red fruits, and earthy mushroom and spice.
The area begins just south of Dijon and ends at the village of Corgoloin. Grand Cru vineyards form a patchwork on the eastern slopes facing the valley of the Saône River, starting at the village of Gevery Chambertin, past Morey St-Denis and south to Vougeot and Vosne Romanée. Most are small and can have many owners, due to the structure of post-French Revolution inheritance laws. These renowned expressions of Pinot Noir can age for decades, and are some of the most expensive wines in the world!
CÔTE DE BEAUNE
Côte de Beaune provides a different expression of Chardonnay from Chablis. With a greater southeasterly expsoure, expect rich Chardonnay from popular names like Corton, Corton Charlemagne, Montrachet, Meursault.
The whites are filled with aromas of soft white flowers, dried grasses, fresh apple and pear, and sometimes a touch of hazelnut. There are many amazing red wines too. Wines have flavors of plum, cherrystone, white tobacco, and that Burgundian signature earthy minerality and good acidity.
Fun Fact: Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are called Côte d’Or together. Côte d’Or means Golden Slope. The Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune are historically considered the most important regions in Burgundy.
Côte Chalonnaise is great for value Pinot Noir and sparkling Crémant, which is made in the same traditional method as Champagne. Smooth Chardonnays are also produced in the Mercurey, Givry, and Montagny areas atop beautiful limestore soils with eroded pebble & clay topsoil.
There are no Grand Cru vineyards here, and it's a shame. The main reason was that the Dukes of Burgundy considered these areas to the south to be more rural and for the peasants.
Bouzeron is the only appellation devoted to a white grape other than Chardonnay, Aligoté. It is is floral, with notes of citrus and flint, and perhaps a touch of honey. Rully produces Cremant de Bourgogne in the traditional method, just as in Champagne.
The most Southerly region, the warmer climate makes a difference in the wine profiles here. It's so much warmer that grapes are harvested 2 weeks before those in Chablis. Expect well structured Chardonnays, with riper tropical fruit notes, honeysuckle, citrus peel, and wild herbs.
The most famous area here is Pouilly-Fuissé, in the south. While there are other regions like St. Veran, Pouilly-Fuissé borders Beaujolais, and the soils are full of limestone with slight layers of granite.